The thought of having to write your bachelor thesis, undergraduate dissertation, final year project or whichever title they came up with, in your university’s country, can be daunting. You’ve made it through three or four years of intense exam periods, endless group projects, challenging cases and the only thing yet to come, before you can graduate, is your thesis. At university, seemingly everyone shares their unsolicited advice ‘start writing from day 1’ and struggles from the time ‘…when I wrote my dissertation’ with you, only to leave you wondering what this is all about. In this blog post, I am sharing my best practices and key take-aways with you, to make this final and possibly defining milestone of your undergraduate studies a successful endeavor.
1. Subject matters
Since you’ll be spending at least one semester on your research project, use it as THE opportunity to learn about a topic of your choice. Over the course of the thesis, you’ll read a vast amount of research papers and industry reports on the subject, so it might as well be something you wouldn’t mind reading in your free time. Besides, you will become an expert in the area eventually, so it should be a subject that you like to talk about, for instance during a presentation to a relevant audience.
If your research is valuable and of high quality, its publication might even help you find a job in that specific industry or field, which is why it is important to make a well-informed decision.
How to choose your research field
If you already have selected a specific study track or specialization such as finance, marketing or supply chain management, good for you. Your field choice is rather easy! If you are one of the curious, yet indecisive butterflies who haven’t chosen a specialization at this point in their studies, think about your internships and which parts of the business seemed interesting to you.
Was it the development of a marketing strategy for client cases, the planning of a new production plant or tackling the digital transformation challenges within the company, that caught your attention? None of them? Take a trip down memory lane on LinkedIn and re-evaluate your previous projects. Which of them were challenging, yet exciting and fun to conduct? And which projects gave you a headache as soon as you read the title? The former ones should give you an indication of your interests and help you narrow down your field of research. Always review your school’s criteria and guidelines before deciding on your research field.
2. In-company research or research lab
Choose your interest over convenience. While that internship company offered you a place to write your thesis, yet requires you to carry out full-time operational work for them, you might want to reconsider this choice. Let me explain why; many of the companies are looking for interns who can carry out full-time work for them. However, they usually don’t see the thesis as part of that 40-hour work week, but more of an extra requirement from school, that you can work on during weekends and evenings. While this might seem an easy option for the thesis semester, the forethought convenience is most likely going to come back at you, once you are a few weeks into the project and realize that few people know and care why and what exactly you are researching about, in their company.
Therefore, I can recommend to choose a company that is actually looking for someone to solve one of their (business) problems or is supporting industry or field research by offering you at least two or three working days to spend on the research. If you think you can handle the full-time work load of the thesis together with a part-time job at the same company, make sure to communicate and manage the expectations from both sides, beforehand, with your management.
If you haven’t found a suitable company for your research idea or field, or would like to focus on academic research, many universities offer a research lab-type of thesis for their undergraduate and graduate students.
- Tip: Browse through the available list of pre-specified research topics for inspiration and find out whether the assigned supervisors have published previous research on your subject to determine a possible match between their expertise and both your expectations. More on this under Step 6.
3. Reviewing literature
Scientific research papers can be read in a different way, compared to the traditional approach of reading a written piece from beginning to end, e.g. novels or newspaper articles. The approach that worked for me, was to scan the abstract and conclusion first, before reading the entire paper with a highlighter pen, to figure out whether the paper would fall under my requested category of papers.
Look into your university’s (online) library to get access to the most popular databases for scientific papers such as EBSCO Host, Business Source Premier, JSTOR or Web of Science. Look for tutorials on how to search databases correctly and keep track of your searches in a matrix to make it easier for setting up your theoretical framework in the later stages.
Keeping it organized
Before you even start with reading the first research article, you should think about how you are going to save all those papers and keep them in one place. Trust me, after the 30th paper, things will get messy and you can easily avoid this by using a simple referencing software who does the job of organizing all those papers and citations in the database.
- I used Mendeley for this and can highly recommend it for both Windows and iOS users. It is free to use and conveniently stores all required information for your citations in the library. Some of Mendeley’s useful features were the in-text citation Word add-on and the browser plug-in, through which I could automatically create, store and add almost all of the in-text citations in my school’s referencing format (APA style). Make sure to review your automatic bibliography for possible referencing errors.
- If you don’t want to use a software to keep track of your literature review, you could open a simple Word document to copy & paste any excerpts and titles of papers you used in your research to stay on top of your cited work.
4. Finding a research topic
Now that you have narrowed down your subject area and reviewed articles in this field, you can start to look for a research gap. Often times, researchers recommend further research in their papers, which could be a potential research possibility for your thesis.
In the applied context, however, the research topic should be determined in alignment with the needs of the company you will be researching for, in the upcoming months. For instance, I found my research gap through a previous project that I did with the same company in the same department. Once I realized there was a need for further research on the user engagement with a relatively new product, I reconfirmed the research gap with my manager.
The final research project should be beneficial to the company and ideally also to your own ambitions. It will be a whole lot easier to carry out the research, if you are genuinely interested in your work and don’t mind spending extra hours on understanding the wider context of your study. After reviewing recent literature in your field, I can recommend browsing through previous thesis projects from students in your faculty, to gain an understanding of the expected depth of research, level of academic writing and to see the final product as a whole.
5. Looking for a supervisor
Finding a supervisor who understands your motivation for the research and can support you with either subject-specific knowledge or general experience with thesis supervision is important and is easily overlooked in the process. While many universities assign supervisors to multiple students, it is almost always possible to request a specific supervisor, if both parties agree with the supervision.
I can recommend this, if you know a faculty member from a previous course and agree with her or his academic standpoint in your research field. It is crucial to discuss any expectations before agreeing on a supervision, to avoid miscommunications and conflicts based on the topic. The following questions will help you determine, whether your supervisor’s expertise matches your research project:
- Does the supervisors academic standpoint align with your idea of the research topic?
- Has the supervisor published previous papers in the field of your study?
- Is the supervisor a pro-active and motivated teacher?
- Has the supervisor previously guided students through their thesis trajectory?
- Is the supervisor known to be reliable and responsible among faculty members and students?
- Does the supervisor have at least five years of field experience?
- Is the supervisor an active member of the teacher body?
I find the best way to discuss a potential supervision in a conversation taking place in-person, between you and your potential supervisor. Make sure to come to the meeting well-prepared, with a plan, to effectively cover all relevant questions regarding the supervision.
6. Make a plan or two
Proper planning can save you valuable time, unnecessary stress and those seemingly unavoidable all-nighters. I planned my thesis project with OneNote, because I found it to be incredibly useful for keeping all my notes and other written content for the research in one Notebook. I created multiple section tabs in my notebook, such as data collection or schedule, to keep my notes organized. You can download OneNote here for free.
I can recommend to map out the entire schedule for the semester before you start writing on your thesis. It doesn’t have to be too detailed, but do set a goal, that you would like to achieve by the end of each working week. One of the typical pitfalls while writing to-do lists, is to set objectives that are unattainable within a day, such as ‘writing theoretical framework’, or objectives that are too detailed, such as ‘reading section 1.2. of paper x’. When planning out your ideal schedule, do account for buffer periods of up to four weeks, especially towards the end of the schedule due to common delays during the data collection phase.
Example of my OneNote schedule:
Achieving your goals
If you are having difficulties with concentration or finding focus time, setting up a writing routine with fixed time slots can help you boost your productivity. The following methods worked for me during the process, especially when I needed to concentrate for longer periods on time to work on models or conceptual frameworks.
- Pomodoro technique (25 min focus time & 5 min break)
- Blocking all social media websites on your browser with BlockSite
- Finding a quiet area in the library or at home
- Getting up early (between 5:00 – 6:30) and starting to write immediately until lunch time (requires some self-discipline at first, but works wonders)
7. Writing your research proposal
Before you start writing your research proposal, think about the literature that you have reviewed previously.
- Which topics seemed interesting and are not well-researched at this point in time?
- Which of the company’s issues could be resolved with a strategy based on some of the articles that you have already reviewed?
- Which business problem can create an opportunity for the company?
Asking yourself these type of critical questions and writing down your answers in the form of a mind-map or list can help to organize your thoughts into useful manner. Make sure to back up your arguments in the problem and opportunity analysis with solid data and relevant, peer-reviewed articles to increase the credibility and validity of your proposal.
If you didn’t receive a pre-specified research assignment from your company or research lab, talk to employees and managers to find out which current issues could be studied in the form of a thesis. Remember that your research proposal captures your current plan of action and is not settled in stone. It can and will change over the course of your research, due to limitations or unexpected findings that you will encounter.
8. Drafting your research plan
I had to hand in a research plan about two months into the research project, containing the first three chapters of my thesis; the introduction with a problem analysis, the theoretical framework and the methodology. For me, the most challenging part was the theoretical framework, which consists of a critical review of various theories and models relevant to your topic.
My recommendation is to first read about how to conduct an academic literature review, before starting to write and summarize seemingly relevant articles in your framework. The book that I used as a guideline for my research was Research methods for business students by Saunders, Lewis & Thornhill (2007). The following learnings helped me to refine my research plan throughout the process.
- Use an academic and neutral tone of writing for the company description
- Stick to the most relevant facts for your problem analysis and focus on the underlying cause for the problem
- Summarize and review any directly relevant article for your research to learn more about the context & have a database of possible components for your theoretical framework available
- Keep the number of data collection methods realistic in regards to the time frame and resources of your research
- Read about when to use qualitative or quantitative data collection methods
- Produce a visual overview of your data collection methods in alignment with your selected theories
- Ask for critical feedback from your supervisor regarding the suitability of selected theories and research methods
9. Collecting & analyzing the data
Once your research plan has been approved and re-worked, you can move onto the data collection part of the research. In my experience, this was the part that gave me the most energy and sense of responsibility. I am grateful for the time that the research participants have taken out of their day to support this study and wanted to make sure their time investment was worthwhile, by entering each research session well-prepared and on time. This is what I learned from collecting my data, using qualitative research methods.
- Start early! While your theoretical framework might still need some twisting and perfecting, you can already start contacting research participants, since they will take their time to answer your requests. In the meantime, you will have enough time to review the framework.
- Figure out which participants are close to your target group and contact them as soon as possible.
- You can contact potential participants via e-mail, phone or in-person. I e-mailed many of them first, if I received their contact details via my professional network. In urgent or non-responsive cases, I would call them too, to request their participation once more. If I knew the participants, I would ask them mostly in-person to be able to explain about the background on the spot.
- Your research participation request e-mail should contain the rough study background, purpose and content, such as sample questions, to provide the potential participant with sufficient information.
- If you have the e-mail of the participant contact, you can try sending an Outlook invite to show your pro-activeness in scheduling the interview.
- Interview tip: Record the interview with Skype or your mobile phone & transcribe with this awesome and free tool called Otranscribe. Alternatively, you can also use the Word dictation add-in to get your recording transcribed with a smart speech recognition tool.
10. Giving recommendations
Last but definitely not least, would be the recommendations of your study. They are often seen as the most important component for in-company research projects and can greatly increase the significance of your study. Make sure your recommendations are directly applicable to your target group and can be implemented as efficient and effective as possible. For example, provide your research company with a product strategy or user guidelines.
This is the most creative part of your research, therefore, use your expertise and insights to come up with valuable recommendations to solve or at least address the business problem. The possibilities for your recommendations are vast and should be based on your quantified research findings. Once again, you have to provide logical arguments for why you can recommend those actions to your target group and also be prepared to explain why certain actions are not recommended, hence which negative implications would follow in such scenarios.
Looking back, I have covered my learnings from the thesis trajectory in 10 steps, to help you navigate through the process with a prepared outlook on what is expecting you down the road. My pitfalls and best practices were discussed per topic and should help you look out for the biggest challenges ahead. Remember, while the thesis is only a small component of your studies, it can catalyze your industry expertise, boost your field experience by a great deal and most importantly, help solve real (business) problems out there. Take responsibility and ownership over this project and make it your best to date!
P.S. If you have any valuable additions or requests for more detailed information to this guide, please let me know in the comments section.
P.P.S. Do start writing on day 1. 😉